Commemorating Emmett Till

Commemorating Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley

In August 1955, Emmett Till — a 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was visiting family in Mississippi — was kidnapped, tortured, and lynched for whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. His murderers were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury (and later detailed how they committed the crime in a magazine interview). Their trial symbolized the fundamental state of racial injustice in Mississippi and across the Jim Crow-era South.

Mamie Till Mobley courageously insisted on a public, open-casket memorial service for her son in Chicago, exposing to the world the horror and human cost of racial violence. The memorial service was attended by thousands, and photos of Emmett’s body sparked international outrage, galvanizing the civil rights movement. A few months after Emmett’s murder, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was later quoted as saying, “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back.”

More than five decades after Emmett’s lynching, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission delivered a public, formal apology to the Till family in front of the Tallahatchie County Courthouse where his killers were acquitted. The apology opened not with a call for closure, but with this call to action: “To overcome the violence of our past, we must first acknowledge it.”

Since 2018, we have been working with the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center (ETIC) to advocate for federal recognition and protection of historic sites connected to Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley to ensure that future generations remember and learn from this critical part of civil rights history. We are dedicated to supporting the efforts of the Till family, ETIC, and their partner organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association, to bring sites connected to Emmett and his mother into the National Park System.

Our lawyers have helped the campaign submit public comments on the national significance of the Till sites to the National Park Service, which is studying a number of historic sites related to the civil rights movement in Mississippi for potential addition to the National Parks. We also organized an opportunity for the campaign to present on the Till sites to officials from across the US Department of the Interior and to request the Secretary of the Interior’s support for this effort.

In 2021, we helped the Till family, ETIC, and their partner organizations to collaborate with US Senator Tammy Duckworth to introduce bipartisan legislation designating Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Chicago a National Historic Site. Roberts Temple — the hallowed site of Emmett’s 1955 memorial service — is in danger of structural collapse, and has been named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

Then, in February 2022, we played a critical role in helping our client host the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Secretary of the Interior as they visited sites connected to Emmett Till and Mamie Till Mobley in Mississippi. We are also assisting our client with efforts to transfer the courthouse to a nonprofit historic preservation organization to ensure its permanent protection as a museum and a major civil rights landmark.

As recent events have reminded us, the struggle for racial justice and equal treatment under the law continues. We believe that advocating for federal recognition and protection of these historic sites — protecting the past to inform the future — is essential to achieving restorative justice and racial reconciliation.

Banner photo credit: Dr. Pablo Correa